DURING THE 2010 election campaign we were told that the prospective leaders’ favourite books wereThe Lord of the Rings and Cloudstreet. Both fine books – but, like so much else that was said in the campaign, answers with a suspiciously focus-group feel to them, unlikely to offend anyone.
Tim Winton’s families in working-class Perth jumped off the page. Theirs were epic if not heroic journeys, where sentimentality bumped into reality. Reading the story helped us make sense of our lives and those of millions of Australians. It did not take long after its first publication, in 1991, to become a classic and for Tim Winton to be feted as the author of a – maybe even the – great Australian novel.
It is easy to see why Cloudstreet would have made a lasting impression on a young lawyer who had moved from working-class Adelaide to cosmopolitan Melbourne. Julia Gillard was thirty when the book was published, and beginning to make her way in a different world to the one she grew up in.
Tony Abbott’s reported preference for The Lord of the Rings also tells us a lot about him. JRR Tolkien’s great trilogy was published several years before Abbott was born, but by the time the future prime ministerial contender was a young man it had already assumed cult status – a mystical adventure tale replete with spiritual symbolism. Again, it is easy to see why it would have struck a particular chord with a religious young man who was both brainy and sporty.
These books tell us quite a lot about where the putative prime ministers came from, but little about the people they have become.
THE POLITICAL EVENTS of the past six months – including the vacuity of the campaign, and its nail-biting conclusion – have had an epic quality, a storyline at odds with the more mundane realities of political life.
The drama opened with the Liberal Party’s decision, on an unseasonably cold December day in Canberra, to replace the man who was prepared to put his leadership on the line to provide bipartisan support for legislation to mitigate the impact of global warming. That he lost by one vote gave the story a particular poignancy. The humiliation of the fall was offset to some degree by the narrowness of the vote and the enormity of the underlying issues. It was easy to see the pain on Malcolm Turnbull’s face, his wife’s outrage, Tony Abbott’s glee, and the sheer handwringing delight of the apparatchiks who surrounded him and engineered his ascendancy.
Thanks to the immediacy and ubiquity of television and the internet this was on display for all to see – but in the wash of floating images it is always difficult to draw out the significance and hang on to it.
As it turned out, the removal of Malcolm Turnbull was an across-building tryout for the removal of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd six months later. The intensity of the plotting and the speed of the execution had all the intensity of a made-for-TV drama.
It was hard to find parallels in political history. The old cliché of the faceless men exercising power did not stack up: they may have been faceless in another age, but as the feverish counting to remove the Prime Minister was underway Paul Howes, the Australian Workers’ Union official who was intimately involved in the coup, pitched for a change of leader on ABC television and then allowed the national broadcaster’s cameras to follow him for weeks afterwards.
It took some time before the literary analogies were drawn on to make sense of the drama. The handful of political commentators with a literary bent quoted from Macbeth – ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly’ – and, as the election campaign unfolded more darkly, from Julius Caesar.
As the ins and outs of the move against the Prime Minister slowly made their way into the public domain, the emotional legacy of the actions lingered. This was clear in the questions that were asked in the public forums during the election campaign, but seemed a mystery to those who were closest to the coup.
It should not have been. The psychological dimension of power and its loss is all too often ignored in the pursuit of numbers and the abstractions of policy. Yet this dimension animates and makes sense of the whole enterprise.
IT IS FAIR to assume that few of those who were directly involved had listened carefully when they were taught Shakespeare at school, or even that ubiquitous early high school text Lord of the Flies. As Fintan O’Toole noted in his primer Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life, the teaching of the Bard’s works has more often than not failed to excite the imagination of schoolchildren. ‘They are the mental equivalent of a cold shower; shocking, awful, but in some obscure way good for you, bracing you for the terrors of life and keeping your mind off bad thoughts about politics, society and the way the world changes. They are an ordeal after which you’re supposed to feel better, a kind of mental muesli that cleans out the system and purges the soul. And like muesli, they are boring, fruity and indigestible roughage.’
Learning to make sense of the world requires understanding that goes beyond your own experience. Reading great books and plays is one of the most time-honoured ways to draw on the wisdom of those who have gone before and captured their knowledge with elegance, wit and insight. There were lessons from Shakespeare’s great tragedies that could have usefully been recalled in Canberra in the winter of 2010 – but in a world of the here and now there is little room for such distilled wisdom from the past.
Yet the jargon of the day refers repeatedly to the narrative of politics: What is the story? How do the bits fit together? They have they lost control of the narrative. It is ironic that journalists, who are in the business of reporting facts, should seek for clarity from the rhetorical mode of fiction. The quest for a narrative has rarely been on such shaky ground as it is in an age of immediacy, constant news updates and competing opinions. More than ever narrative is, as the former editor of the New York Times Joseph Lelyveld noted, ‘a hungry beast that can seldom be commanded: inherently unstable and on the lookout for for prey…always foraging’.
We make sense of complex events through storytelling, but the thread is easily lost when events are moving quickly and not all actions or motivations can be known. Journalism may provide the first draft of history, but it is increasingly ill-suited to making sense of the big story, of fitting the details together, of making sense of the full complexity. It is left to us to join up the bits and make sense of it all.
RELYING ON OUR own experience will often be inadequate. As I sought to make sense of the local political events of 2010, a series of novels – narratives – gave me the greatest insights.
Hilary Mantel’s depiction of the exercise of power in her Booker-winning Wolf Hall is a study overloaded with contemporary insights. Her book is set in the court of Henry VIII, but could effortlessly transpose to the present: the characters and challenges are universal. Mantel’s description of Thomas Cromwell watching the execution of Thomas More is apposite: ‘Like all the other witnesses he swirls his own cloak about him and kneels. At the sickening sound of the axe on flesh he darts one glance upwards. The corpse seems to have leapt back from the stroke and folded itself like a stack of old clothes – inside which he knows a pulse is still beating. The past moves heavily inside him, a shifting of the ground.’ More’s head has hardly hit the ground before Cromwell notes the King’s diary and realises he has a few days free – ‘Who says I never get a holiday?’
In The Unnamed, the young American writer Joshua Ferris tells the tale of a lawyer, Tim, beset by an illness that forces him to walk, endlessly. After several bouts Tim seeks to return to his firm, and makes a plea with striking familiarity to anyone who watched Prime Minister Rudd’s gut-wrenching final address, when he castigated himself for ‘blubbing’. Ferris describes a similar situation: ‘He had sat before the panel trying not to cry. Whatever you do, don’t cry, just keep talking. His desperation was like a pheromone secreting itself into a roomful of wolves. He appealed to them on the basis of over twenty years of impeccable service and the many millions he’d made the firm. You thankless sons of bitches! he wanted to scream. You ruthless bureaucrats! You’ll get sick one day too. This flinty need vied against total supplication. Oh please take me back! Grant me some measure of life again…I will be good, will do as I am told.’
As the election campaign unfolded two other books made sense of the daily tableau in a way that went beyond the headlines. Jessica Rudd’s amusing snapshot of the chaos and emotion of life on the campaign trail, in Campaign Ruby, went a long way to explaining the exhausting routines of seeking office – and how it was conceivable that a girl from another country could plausibly drop into a campaign and, in the madness of an ‘always on’ media cycle, even be asked to write policy that might become legislation.
And as the inflammatory discussion about population amplified the fears of many Australians, the reality of a closed society came to life for me in David Mitchell’s Booker-longlisted The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a masterful novel that reaches deep into the reality of what happens when a society pulls up the drawbridge and declares itself closed.
The insights these books provide cannot be easily found in reporting, or in the reality TV of day-to-day politics. An act of imagination is required.
Finding time to absorb lessons in human psychology is hard in a busy life. Bookshops’ shelves are crowded with self-help and pop-psychology, so there is clearly a demand – but the insights are also there in the best biographies, and brimming out of the best novels.
It is a shame that by the choice of their favourite books, our political leaders seem to be saying that reading fiction is something done as a young person, or merely for amusement. Reading great fiction is an entertainment, but it is also a way of learning about the world, about people and, most importantly, about consequences.
I HOPE YOU enjoy this collection of short stories and memoirs, and that they will give you pleasure and the occasional insight into what it means to be alive in the emerging Asian century.
7th September 2010
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